Getting Better at Getting Better at Things

I like the idea of New Year’s Resolutions (NYRs). They’re arbitrary self-improvement goals, and I like to attach metrics™️ to stuff like that. Real-life OKRs, if you will. I’m not up for Zuckerbergy year-long plans to learn a new language, but I am all about actionable steps to be a better human/partner/recycler/fitness-er/employee/boss/friend/etc. Sometimes I try to do more of something good, but often I try to do less of something I’m trying to cut down on. Spoiler: doing less of something is easier to accomplish than starting to do something new in your day-to-day. Bonus: you’re making actual improvements by doing less. Quantified improvements through doing less: the dream.

My strongest recommendation is not to try to cold turkey things you’d like to quit, unless you’ve been able to successfully quit something cold in the past — and if you have done that successfully, you probably aren’t reading things like this anyway. Try to gradually replace the bad habit with something good, or, at least less bad. You’ll probably be able to change a habit more easily if you replace it with something that addresses the underlying basis or trigger for the habit, but isn’t as destructive as the habit itself. Disclaimer: I am not a doctor or a mental health professional. I’m just someone who’s meticulous (…obsessive) about a lot of day-to-day things, including observing and course-correcting my own behavior.

How can you even start to get better at getting better at things? Here are some things I do to identify and articulate:

  • the behavior I want to change
  • what triggers the behavior
  • what, if anything, I can replace the behavior with
  • how to quantify the improvement
  • how to reward myself (in a healthy way) for making the improvement

For many behaviors we want to change, the greater reward is long-term and change isn’t really visible on a regular basis. Often the quantification and reward parts of these can be most concretely approximated financially: how much does this habit cost me, and how much could I save (or maybe spend on something better) if I did something differently? It’s harder to quantify “having good skin” or “slower progression toward cancer”, and the progress seems invisible, so try the money thing and see if that works.

Programming note: this isn’t intended to be a shopping post, but I have included links to a few products that are helpful for some of the NYR ideas here — and I’ve specifically not used affiliate links for items that would be detrimental to the resolutions. I’m a participant in the Amazon Associates Program, which means I may collect a small share of sales made from the Amazon.com affiliate links on this page.

So what are some NYR ideas?

Below I’ve detailed how I would think about making changes for a few example not-great habits, ordered arbitrarily from what I think would be easier to harder habits to change (ymmv):

  • Stop drinking soda/juice/other sugar/diet sugar waters. I actually did this a few years ago, and not only was it easier than I expected, I haven’t looked back. I will have a fountain Cherry Coke about once a year at a movie theatre, and maaaaybe a fancy “lady soda” every 4 months-ish, but really, that’s it. This one has tons of health and budget benefits: if you can replace drinking soda with drinking water (or un-sugared seltzer if you like that fizzy sparkle), your teeth, skin, doctor, and bank account will thank you. Track how many sodas a day you drink, and aim to reduce that by 25%(?) each week and replace it with water? Water with lemon and mint if you’re Goop-y? Fun seltzers if you’re into #lacroixbeforeboys? Maybe unsweetened(!) iced tea if you’re drinking caffeinated soda… one thing at a time. Note: I’m not suggesting that you quit drinking soda AND start hauling around an expensive bowling pin and be the person who stops busy cafe traffic to fill it at the water cooler because 1. that person is obnoxious and 2. that giant nalgene/camelback/sigg doesn’t fit into my life (aka I barely remember to bring a water bottle to my fitness classes) so I wouldn’t presume to tell you that will fit into your life either. Bonus round: the fancy water bottle thing, I guess? Or, if you’re just going full tap and/or Brita-pitcher, track your savings from not buying soda. Reward your progress with… a celebration of how much storage and fridge space you’re saving at home? Fewer cavities and more compliments at the dentist? Also importantly, just notice how much better you’ll feel almost immediately.
  • Stop biting your nails. I actually did this cold-turkey-ish my senior year of high school, but I don’t know exactly what triggered stopping. Prior to fully quitting, I tried to replace biting my nails with [far too aggressive] cuticle-pushing — 15 years into not biting my nails, I do still pick at my thumb cuticles. Although I am perpetually trying to stop the cuticle attacks, as a wise manicurist once said, if you went from biting all your nails to only tearing at 2 of them, that’s progress! Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of keeping your hands out of your mouth. If you’re trying to stop biting your nails, I think the replacement habit is key, and this can be a tough one (see above re: cuticles). You need something that satisfies the nervous energy impulse to keep biting/tearing at until something until it’s smooth, but you don’t want to just spend all day tearing up paper (or maybe you do! give that a try if you have spare paper or need confetti). One approach I’ve deployed is to make it physically difficult to bite/tear: apply Neosporin to your cuticles and nail beds, which will moisturize to smooth the formation of new, temping snags, and will speed healing of existing damage. Another approach is trying to do recognize the behavior and punish it (wear a rubber band on your wrist and snap it when you realize you’re biting your nails; fine yourself by denying yourself something you like; etc). The punishment approach didn’t really work for me, hence the cuticle-pushing-turned-thumb-cuticle-picking, but maybe it’ll work for you. Bonus round: keep track of how many colds you get over the year; I bet you feel healthier due to a. not having your hands in your mouth and b. not having so many open wounds on your hands, which are consistently touching gross stuff (I am a germaphobe). Reward: learn to do your own gel manicures and keep those newly-lengthy nails 👌🏽✨💅🏽
  • Stop picking at your face. Everyone knows picking at your skin causes scarring, but we do it anyway. Instead, maybe… develop a mental link between picking at your skin and wiping bacteria on your face from all the things you touch on a daily basis? [again: germaphobe. These things are easy to conjure and conveniently, scarily effective for me. Happy to help by coming up with a new, custom phobia for you, too!] Or just focus on keeping your hands away from your face, which necessarily prevents picking. I do this by keeping mental track of the last time I washed my hands, or trying to estimate the number of people who touch a given doorknob and the likelihood that a few of them don’t wash their hands like me… I wouldn’t advise this as the *best* approach. Reward? Well, there’s definitely something to be said for more confidence in your skin, on its own. If you want to build on that, you’ll definitely enjoy buying fewer ~targeted treatment~ products! (And if you really want to boost the reward, spend those savings on products you really like and enjoy how much more effective they are on your newly-calmed, unpicked skin.)
  • Stop Smoking. Quitting smoking entirely would of course be the best thing to do, from a physical and financial standpoint. That said, smoking seems like a habit that could introduce real trauma — and maybe encourage some even more unhealthy behaviors — if you quit abruptly without adequate supports? I’ve never been a smoker so I don’t have personal experience to share, but knowing what I know about myself — ✔️ nervous habit person; ✔️ previous experience turning an unhealthy habit into a healthier but not perfect habit — here’s what I think I’d try: Start by tracking my daily use, honestly and militantly, and try to reduce it by… 10%? 15%? each week. Bonus round: put a dollar value on each cigarette. [maybe this would help you, too: Putting a price on something you’re going to literally light on fire really helps me to cap spending something I dearly love. These are just ideas but I think worth a shot.] Replace the activity with, I’m not sure… drinking a favorite seltzer water? Definitely make sure it’s something to look forward to, that gets you up for a walk, and that feels at least a bit satisfying. And acknowledge and celebrate progress with a reward — maybe I’d buy a nicer lunch than I usually would on Fridays, or go for a movie date with some of the money I’ve saved. Maybe I’d put the savings on things I’m not buying to light on fire into something healthier that I dearly love (but still buy in order to light on fire).

tl;dr: Identify the thing you want to change (and its triggers). Track your current behavior and try to adjust in the direction you want to go. Replace it, if applicable (and helpful!). Reward yourself for your progress. And don’t be too hard on yourself if your improvement doesn’t quite get to perfection.

And then keep going. ✨💪✨